The year of 2023 will be remembered for some amazing moments, but the sports world also lost icons, pioneers and so many more throughout the year, including two of the greatest players in NFL history, maybe the greatest defender in MLB history, the coach that defined Indiana basketball and a head coach who died before her first game.
Here are some of the biggest deaths in the sports world this year and why they mattered, in chronological order.
An NFL officiating supervisor doesn’t get enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame without doing something big. Introducing instant replay to the biggest television property on Earth sufficed. McNally, a veteran referee, pushed the league to adopt the vital technology in the 1970s and 1980s, with its full adoption arriving in 1986.
Few, if any, people in this list saw as success in as many areas as Block, who co-founded the DC Shoes brand in 1994, became a successful rally car driver with 16 wins in 60 Rally America starts and five X Games medals, competed in skateboarding, snowboarding and motocross and amassed millions of followers on YouTube and Instagram. He died at 55 in a tragic snowmobile accident in Utah.
The end of the Pac-12 means White will forever remain the conference’s all-time leading rusher, if you include bowl games. The Los Angeles native amassed 6,245 yards with the Trojans, winning a national championship in 1978 and the Heisman Trophy in 1979. His NFL career was suppressed by drug abuse issues, but his talent became apparent in 1987 when he led the league with 1,374 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns after he got clean.
The celebration of Georgia’s second consecutive national title was marred by the death of Willock, an offensive lineman, and Bulldogs recruiting coordinator Chandler LeCroy. There are legal issues still lingering from the case, including for Willock’s teammate, Philadelphia Eagles star rookie Jalen Carter.
Once upon a time, the Oakland Athletics were a dynasty, and Bando was their captain. Drafted when the team was in Kansas City, Bando became a regular MVP candidate — receiving votes in six straight years — as the A’s won three straight World Series from 1972 to 1974. A dispute with ownership later saw him leave for the Milwaukee Brewers, for whom he eventually became general manager after retirement.
From 1975 to 2008, you couldn’t watch the Final Four without hearing Packer’s voice. His first Final Four, however, came in 1962 when he helped lead Wake Forest as a player to the national semifinals. Packer was a famously harsh analyst, and not without his critics, but he was part of the fabric of college basketball as March Madness became a nationwide obsession.
“The Golden Jet” found that curving the blade of his hockey stick would result in a more powerful shot. He was correct, and his 610 career NHL goals is more than enough proof that it was a good idea. A 1983 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, Hull was a 10-time NHL First Team All-Star, three-time Art Ross Trophy winner, two-time Hart Trophy winner, 1961 Stanley Cup champion and 1983 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. Outside of hockey, Hull found himself involved in controversy. Two of his wives accused him of assault and battery, and in 1998 he made pro-Nazi comments in an interview with The Moscow Times — comments Hull later said were taken out of context.
The Washington D.C.-area real estate magnate became the first real owner of the Washington Nationals when he bought the team from Major League Baseball in 2006. The relatively brief history of the Nationals has seen its ups and downs, but a World Series title in 2019 gave the district its first trophy since 1924, a full two franchises ago.
Faut was the ace among aces in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, where she accrued a 1.23 career ERA, a 140-64 record, 913 strikeouts, four no-hitters and two perfect games for the South Bend Blue Sox. The pitching section of the league’s record book is essentially a tribute to Faut, who was discovered by a scout while working at a clothing factory.
Richardson became the rare former NFL player to outright own a team when the NFL accepted his bid to bring an expansion team to Charlotte in 1993. He would control the Carolina Panthers until 2018, when his tenure ended with the NFL substantiating allegations of, among other things, sexual harassment and the use of a racial slur against a Black team scout.
Rawls began playing golf at the fairly late age of 17 and made the sport the rest of her life. Within a decade of swinging her first club, she was a professional on the LPGA Tour and went on to win 55 events with the circuit, plus eight majors. She became president of the LPGA in 1961, then spent decades as a tournament director. She was among the original inductees into the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1967 and reached the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1987.
Few will forget how close the Minnesota Vikings came to a Super Bowl title under Grant. The Minnesota alum played for the Minneapolis Lakers before committing to football and ultimately coached the Vikings for 18 seasons. They reached the Super Bowl four times and came up short against four different teams, which didn’t stop him from becoming a Hall of Famer. He also won four Grey Cups with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Canada.
Imagine being an elite athlete and realizing that every single one of your competitors is doing the sport wrong. That was what Fosbury experienced in the high jump. At a time when every high-jumper would run parallel to the bars and jump face down over the bar, Fosbury showed up to the 1968 Olympics and won gold by approaching the bar more directly and arching his back over the bar. It wasn’t long before every athlete in the sport copied him, which they still do to this day.
Reed was an NBA MVP and seven-time All-Star, but he’ll be most remembered for the toughness he showed in the 1970 NBA Finals. Considered unlikely to play in the decisive Game 7 due to a torn thigh muscle, Reed still suited up and scored the Knicks’ first four points. He went on to be named Finals MVP in 1970 and 1973, which remain the Knicks’ only championships.
In the 4x100m relay at the 2016 Olympics, English Gardner rounded the track and handed the baton to Bowie, then watched her finish off a dominating performance for gold. Bowie ended her track career with three Olympic medals and the 2017 world championship in the 100 meters. It was a shocking loss for the track community when she was found dead of complications from childbirth, alone and significantly underweight.
Groat was a two-time All-American for Duke men’s basketball and a two-time World Series champion in MLB. He became the first player to have his number retired at Cameron Indoor Stadium after three years with the Blue Devils, then joined the Pittsburgh Pirates after being wooed by Branch Rickey. He ended up spending 14 years in MLB, winning a title with the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.
St. Louis Cardinals fans love their baseball and much of what they learned came from Shannon, who spent a full 50 years in the team’s broadcasting booth. Add in the St. Louis native’s four years in the team’s minor-league system and his nine seasons playing for the big league club, and he spent more than six decades working for his hometown team. He won two World Series rings with the team in 1964 and 1967.
The Oakland Athletics’ World Series three-peat team from 1972 to ’74 wouldn’t have been complete without the decorated pitcher. He spent nine of his 17 seasons in Oakland, earning AL Cy Young and MVP honors in his third campaign. He and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Dock Ellis became the first two African American pitchers to start in the All-Star Game that year. Also making stops in Kansas City and San Francisco, Blue notched six All-Star nods before his career ended. He died at 73 years old of medical complications stemming from cancer.
An assistant under John Wooden during UCLA’s legendary run, Crum formed his own legacy at Louisville. He won two national titles, defeating UCLA in one of them, and remains the Cardinals’ all-time leader in wins. His most lasting legacy might be college basketball’s early season clashes between highly ranked non-conference opponents, as he was ahead of his time in scheduling early challenges for his team.
There was nobody in poker like Brunson. The epitome of an icon, Brunson wrote the original book on poker 25 years before becoming a household name as the godfather of the 2000s TV poker boom. He was a regular on the streaming circuit until his death in May at 89 years old. A 10-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner and two-time main event champion, Brunson stood the test of time for decades in an ever-evolving game. He was beloved in a game where people compete for each other’s money.
It is a popular misconception that the Cleveland Browns are named after their greatest player ever. They may as well have been. Brown led the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons and retired as the league’s all-time leading rusher. He was also an important figure in the civil rights movement, speaking out on issues at a time when few athletes did. Unfortunately, repeated allegations of domestic violence marred his legacy.
Craig was a starting pitcher on the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, winning the franchise’s first World Series, and went on to three more titles in his career: once with the Dodgers, once with the St. Louis Cardinals and once as the innovative pitching coach of the Detroit Tigers. He played a vital role in popularizing the splitter and later managed the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants, winning a pennant with the latter in 1989.
Brown was an offensive lineman so physical that former Raiders teammate Gene Upshaw once said “I had opponents come up to me during games and say, ‘Gene, tell Bob to stop hitting me.’” The Hall of Famer is one of only three players to have his number retired at Nebraska and was part of one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history with the Raiders in 1971.
Mallett had all the tools, and that got him pretty far. The five-star recruit began his career at Michigan and transferred to Arkansas after a coaching change. He became an All-SEC passer with the Razorbacks and got first-round NFL Draft hype, but ultimately fell to the third round. He spent his NFL career as a backup, but had his day in the sun as a Baltimore Raven in 2015 with an upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He drowned in Florida, at the age of 35.
A rising star in American cycling, White was 17. He was struck by a vehicle during a training ride in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. He had been racing at the national level for seven years, amassing accolades as he represented the United States. He won the Junior 17-18 Cyclocross national championship in 2021 and went on to compete for the USA Cycling National Team during the European Cyclocross racing season. He was selected to represent the U.S. again at the 2023 Cyclocross World Championships in the Netherlands in February. He was new to mountain biking, an avenue was set to explore.
“A winner.” That’s how Rutgers’ women’s basketball head coach Coquese Washington described McCray-Penson. Washington knew McCray-Penson from their time as teammates with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever. McCray-Penson played nine years in the WNBA, debuting in 1998. The former University of Tennessee powerhouse won two Olympic gold medals before retiring in 2006. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and helped South Carolina to its first NCAA title in 2017 on Dawn Staley’s staff. After leading Old Dominion University for three seasons, she took her second head coaching role at Mississippi State University in 2020. She cited health reasons after she resigned after her first season. She was entering her second season as an assistant at Rutgers when she died at 51 years old.
Lujack started at quarterback for three seasons at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish finished atop the AP Poll and claimed a national championship in all three, while Lujack took home the Heisman Trophy in 1947. That career was interrupted by World War II, with Lujack spending two years helping the Navy hunt German submarines before resuming football and later becoming a Pro Bowler for the Chicago Bears.
Wirtz took over the Chicago Blackhawks franchise following his father, Bill’s, death in 2007. He immediately consummated a television deal to broadcast home games, which wasn’t done while his father was in charge. That led to a resurgence on and off the ice, one that saw three Stanley Cups (2010, 2013, 2015) and the mending of relationships between the team and notable alumni such as Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito. His tenure as team owner was blemished by the Blackhawks’ response to a former player claiming he was sexually assaulted by former video coach Brad Aldrich in 2010. An outside law firm conducted a review and found the franchise mishandled the allegations. It also found no evidence that Wirtz was aware of what had happened to Kyle Beach before the lawsuit was filed. Wirtz later petitioned the Hockey Hall of Fame to have Aldrich’s name removed from the Stanley Cup.
Collins went from being waived by the Seattle Seahawks to a near-1,000-yard season with the Baltimore Ravens in the span of a year in 2017. Health issues limited the rest of his career. His death by motorcycle accident in his native Florida stunned both teams for which he played.
“RJ” called Buffalo Sabres games beginning in 1971 on radio through the 2021-22 NHL season when he was the team’s television play-by-play man. His most memorable call was “May Day,” highlighting Brad May’s overtime goal during the 1993 Adams Division semifinal that completed the Sabres’ sweep over the Boston Bruins, the franchise’s first playoff series win in a decade. Jeanneret was the 2012 recipient of the Foster Hewitt Award and his plaque is on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He is also one of 11 people to have a banner in the KeyBank Center rafters.
Corrales became MLB’s first Mexican-American manager in 1978 with the Texas Rangers. He would go on to manage the Philadelphia Phillies and Cleveland Indians as well and ultimately spent seven different decades as a player, coach and manager in MLB.
Brandt joined the Dallas Cowboys as chief talent scout when they were founded in 1960 and spent the next three decades revolutionizing the field of scouting. The Cowboys’ five Super Bowl titles, the last one coming in the 1995 season, wouldn’t have been possible without the talent Brandt landed, from Roger Staubach (10th-round pick, 1964) to Michael Irvin (first round, 1988). He followed his scouting career with years as a media draft analyst.
Meador remains the Los Angeles Rams’ all-time leader in interceptions with 46 and his 12-season tenure earned him a spot on the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade team. With an additional 22 fumble recoveries (tied for most in team history), seven forced fumbles and 10 blocked kicks, his job was simply to create havoc for the opposing team.
The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers played his final NFL season for his hometown team, the Buffalo Bills, in 2014. The 36-year-old was working at a construction site in his retirement from the league. He reportedly died of bacterial sepsis after he sustained injuries in a construction accident in August. He was mostly unresponsive during his hospital stay but woke up when he heard his daughter, Mya, speaking to him, her mom Tierney Lyle said.
Sellers was a New York high school basketball star who decided to stay home and play at Rutgers under a head coach by the name of Dick Vitale. The result was an All-American career in Piscataway and the only Final Four appearance in the school’s history. He went on to play briefly in the NBA before spending four years as an assistant coach at Rutgers.
There was no louder voice for player safety inside college football’s coaching ranks than Teevens, who eliminated live tackling in practice in his Dartmouth program and testified before Congress that the decision significantly reduced concussions. A lack of tackling didn’t stop the Big Green from winning conference titles in 2015, 2019 and 2021. The former Stanford and Tulane head coach’s life was cut short after a truck struck him while on a bicycle.
Hall of Famer Johnny Bench once said “I will become a left-handed hitter to keep the ball away from that guy.” He was talking about Robinson, the Baltimore Orioles defensive stalwart who won 16 straight Gold Gloves at third base and helped lead his team to two World Series titles. Think about that again: 16 straight Gold Gloves, the most ever among non-pitchers. No list of MLB’s greatest defenders is complete without him.
Snow, the Calgary Flames assistant general manager, became a prominent face of ALS after his 2019 diagnosis. While Snow continued to work for the team, his wife, Kelsie, documented his fight against the disease and how the family was dealing with it. The Calgary Flames Foundation’s “Snowy Strong” campaign ended up raising nearly $600,000 for ALS research.
Francis was a three-time Pro Bowler whom Howard Cosell once proclaimed as the “all-world” tight end during his career with the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers. His receiving ability (5,262 receiving yards, 40 touchdowns) combined with his 6-foot-4, 242-pound frame made him a precursor to the position’s modern form. At age 70, he died in a plane crash in Lake Placid, New York.
The course of Boston Red Sox history changed in the 2004 ALCS, and Wakefield was the winning pitcher in the 14-inning Game 5 that represented the New York Yankees’ last real chance to close the door on their rivals. Wakefield remains beloved in Boston, having ridden his always mercurial knuckleball to the team’s franchise record in innings pitched.
Butkus was born in Chicago, went to high school in Chicago, went to college in Illinois and played nine of the most dominant seasons the NFL has ever seen for the Chicago Bears. There are players who are respected and players who are feared. Butkus was the latter, thanks to a propensity for vicious hits that stood out even during the 1960s. He remains a city-defining icon in Chicago and one of the greatest defensive players the NFL has ever seen.
The father of Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, Malone coached in the NBA for three decades. He was the original head coach of the Toronto Raptors and won two titles with the Detroit Pistons after helping develop the “Jordan Rules” under Chuck Daly. In his 27 NBA seasons, Malone’s teams made the playoffs 20 times with a combined 1,165-1,001 record.
Garrison was a cowboy who starred for the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Dallas Cowboys. Moonlighting on the pro rodeo circuit during the NFL offseason (Madison Bumgarner, eat your heart out), Garrison found more fame helping lead Dallas to its first Super Bowl title in 1972. A fullback known for his toughness, Garrison led the team in receptions that year with 40 as part of a trio of backs alongside Duane Thomas and Calvin Hill.
Charlton sat at the center of Manchester United and the English national team, both on the field and in their history. The son of a coal miner, Charlton rose to become England’s greatest soccer star, leading Man U to three First Division titles and England to its only World Cup title in 1966. He survived the horrific 1958 plane crash that killed eight of his teammates and persevered to become a national hero.
Tragedy shook the Georgetown women’s basketball team before the season when Butts, its first-year head coach, died of breast cancer before her first game with the Hoyas. The 41-year-old Butts played under Pat Summitt at Tennessee and worked as an assistant coach at Duquesne, UCLA, LSU and Georgia Tech before getting her first head-coaching job. She fought cancer for two years, helping to raise money to fight the illness after going public with her diagnosis.
Johnson died after he suffered a cut to the neck from a skate during an Elite Ice Hockey League game in England. The undrafted forward worked his way to play 13 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins over two seasons before later plying his trade in the American Hockey League and in Europe. Following his death, the Nottingham Panthers retired Johnson’s No. 47 jersey.
Howard was a big man (6-foot-7, 255 pounds) who rode a big bat (382 career home runs) to stardom. Under the tutelage of manager Ted Williams, Howard became the biggest star of the second incarnation of the Washington Senators and ended up with nicknames — “Hondo,” “the Washington Monument” and “the Capital Punisher” — to match. He later became a manager himself with the San Diego Padres and New York Mets.
It’s hard to think of a death in sports that saw the words “complicated” and “controversial” used in so many obituaries. Knight was one of the greatest college basketball coaches, retiring as the NCAA’s all-time wins leader and a three-time champion at Indiana. He was also his own greatest enemy, with anger management issues precipitating his downfall at Bloomington. There will never be another coach like him.
An icon of North Carolina basketball and the Phoenix Suns, Davis died in November at 69 years old. An athletic wing with a sweet stroke, Davis was one of the best shooters of his era. A four-year starter for Dean Smith, Davis averaged 15.7 points and led UNC to the 1977 national championship game. He earned NBA Rookie of the Year in 1978 and was named an All-Star six times in 11 seasons with the Suns before finishing his 15-year NBA career with the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers. He shot 51.1% from the field and averaged 18.9 points per game in an NBA career that largely predated the advent of the 3-point era. In 1984, a young Michael Jordan called Davis the best player he’d ever played against.
Hayden was an all-conference cornerback at Houston, a first-round draft pick in 2013 and a nine-season NFL player with the Las Vegas Raiders, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Washington Football Team. He was one of six fatalities, two others being his college teammates, in a horrific late-night car crash.
MLB team owners worried about their legacy would have benefited from looking toward San Diego when Seidler’s death was announced. A member of the O’Malley family who owned the Los Angeles Dodgers for 48 years, Seidler bought the Padres in 2012 and allowed the small-market team to build one of MLB’s largest payrolls, giving grateful fans a level of star power never before seen in the city. And all it cost was money.
The race that turned NASCAR into a national sport was the 1979 Daytona 500, in which 16 million people watched Richard Petty win, and Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough get into a fistfight as the race ended. Squier’s voice masterfully narrated it all, as well as the next 20 years of NASCAR. He remains the only person to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame primarily as a broadcaster.
Hernandez switched teams and roles in 1984, becoming the Detroit Tigers’ closer after a trade from the Philadelphia Phillies. The two changes saw him become a Cy Young Award winner, an MVP and a World Series champion, all in one year. Posting a 1.92 ERA in a league-high 80 appearances in 1984, Hernandez joined Sandy Koufax and Denny McLain as the only people to win all three in a single season.
Hasselbach was born to a Dutch father and a Surinamese mother, spent time growing up in Kenya and Indonesia and eventually became one of a handful of players to win a Super Bowl in the NFL and a Grey Cup in the CFL. A durable defensive end, he won the former twice as a starter with the Denver Broncos and the latter with the Calgary Stampeders. He remains the only known Dutchman to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
The Music City Miracle started on the foot of Buffalo Bills kicker Steve Christie, landed in the hands of Lorenzo Neal and was handed off to Wycheck, who threw one of the most famous laterals in NFL history to Kevin Dyson for a game-winning return touchdown. Controversy remains over whether Wycheck’s lateral was actually a forward pass, but his career remains a standout with three Pro Bowl appearances, a spot in the Titans’ Ring of Honor and years as a broadcaster.
McGinnis was Indiana basketball through and through. He was the state’s Mr. Basketball and a state champion in 1969, earned All-America honors with the Hoosiers in 1971 and got his professional start with the Indiana Pacers when they were an ABA team, winning league championships in his first two seasons. He found success in the NBA as well and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2017.
Montross was a stalwart of North Carolina basketball and universally beloved throughout the UNC community. A part-time starter as a freshman on UNC’s 1991 Final Four team, he developed into a two-time consensus All-American and the anchor of Carolina’s 1993 title team that secured coach Dean Smith’s second national championship. After an eight-year NBA career, Montross returned to Chapel Hill as a radio analyst on the The Tar Heel Sports Network and philanthropist supporting the North Carolina Children’s Hospital, cancer research and global vaccine distribution. He died in December at 52 years old following a battle with cancer.
In a world where coming in first is all that matters, Murphy was first in a lot of ways. She became known as “The Fastest Woman on Wheels” after becoming the first woman to drive a jet dragster and the first woman licensed to compete in any nitro class, which she did while competing alongside men in Funny Car competitions. She also became the first woman to drive alone at high speeds in Indianapolis while testing and broke a women’s closed-course record at Talladega.
Kohl was a titan of Wisconsin business and politics, in addition to being the state’s most impactful sports benefactor. The founder of the Kohl’s department store chain and a four-term U.S. senator, Kohl purchased the Milwaukee Bucks in 1985 to prevent the team from leaving the state and provided the funding for UW-Madison’s basketball and hockey arena, aptly named the Kohl Center. He owned the Bucks until 2014.
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